Revealed: the secrets of the Tudor cross-dressers

A new study explores female cross-dressing in 16th-century London – and suggests that sexual pleasure was a key part of its appeal

A woodcut of 17th-century pickpocket Mary Frith © Granger Collection–Topfoto

Cross-dressing may often be seen as a modern phenomenon, but it has in fact taken place for centuries – and new research shows that, for people in medieval and early Tudor England, it had an erotic, as well as practical, purpose.

The study, which explored London legal records dating from between 1450 and 1553 for instances of female cross-dressing, revealed 13 cases of women prosecuted for the act. Some wore men’s hats or priests’ gowns, while others cut their hair short. Only two did so to pass as a man or for an extended period of time: the rest were described as wearing typically male clothing temporarily, in sexual or erotic situations.

The cases include that of Joan White, described in documents dating from around 1490 as a “singlewoman” (medieval slang for a prostitute), who reportedly confessed to being “wont to dance and make revels in her master’s house, sometimes in man’s clothing and sometimes naked”.

In the research, published in History Workshop Journal, Judith M Bennett from the University of Southern California and Shannon McSheffrey from Concordia University also highlight records drawn up by London’s commissary court in 1493.

They note that a woman named Thomasina had given lodging to a woman who wore men’s clothing and is recorded as being a “concubine”, a term used in the period to denote an individual involved in a long-term illicit union. Bennett and McSheffrey suggest that, as no man is named as the concubine’s ‘owner’, the illicit union may have been between the two women.

Bennett told BBC History Magazine: “People often think that, historically, female cross-dressers were practical and dull: that women cross-dressed to travel, to serve in armies, or get well-paid jobs. But our research suggests that women also cross-dressed for fun and pleasure. Sometimes this fun was for men who liked the sexual ambiguity offered by women who dressed as men – but in other cases it appears that it was fun for women, too.

“While 13 cases is a small number, evidence from this period is always sparse – medievalists are used to working with scant evidence. The fact that much ‘misbehaviour,’ in any period, goes unnoticed or unreported means there are bound to have been other instances of cross-dressing that were not brought to the attention of local officers.”

McSheffrey and Bennett found no instances of erotic cross-dressing in English towns outside London. Five of the cases in the study identified people born outside England. The public response to female cross-dressing was mixed – with it largely being understood in terms of “women’s sexual misrule”, or prostitution.

The short hair of three of the cross-dressing women was described as being “a great displeasure of God and an abomination to the world,” while a crackdown on prostitution in 1519 led to several being indicted as “strumpets and common harlots of their bodies”.

The very existence of female cross-dressing in the 15th and 16th centuries suggests that we need to reassess our view of historical attitudes to gender, argue Bennett and McSheffrey. “We have a tendency today to think that all forms of ‘gender-bending’ are ‘cool’ and modern,” says Bennett.

“This flatters us as being better than any people who have lived before us, but it inaccurately describes the past: medieval and early Tudor ideas about gender and sexuality were also flexible and fun-filled. Their views were different from ours, but not necessarily backward and rigid.”

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